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Tabula Rasa

Francesco Goya

An Inquisitive Mind

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995

Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches' Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That's because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear... I don't believe anybody since Goya could put so much of sheer hell into a set of features or a twist of expression. And before Goya you have to go back to the medieval chaps who did the gargoyles and chimeras on Notre Dame and Mont Saint-Michel. They believed all sorts of things -- and maybe they saw all sorts of things too...
-- Pickman's Model, H.P. Lovecraft, 1926.
Francesco Goya is discussed in many art histories as Goya the social critic, or Goya the court painter and master of exquisite portraiture. Indeed, his best known works are probably The Third of May, the clothed and unclothed Maja, and -- The Sleep of Reason.

The full title, in Spanish in the corner of the picture, is 'the sleep of reason produces monsters'. It has been variously interpreted as an allegory of the dangers of superstition, a protest against the spirit of rationalism and a self portrait of a tormented artist. What is in any case clear, is that the darkness is strong and the sleeper will not easily awaken. Goya's is the story of an artist in an age and milieu where the activity expected of him was clearly mapped out; but who time and time again went outside the bounds to the consternation of his patrons, the Spanish Inquisition and, one sometimes feels, himself. But he couldn't stop.

Spain in the late Eighteenth century might be thought of as a very good place to paint monsters. Spain was where investigations of witchcraft and demonology were still commonplace, where the notorious Inquisition had but recently been disbanded. But monsters were not what the nobility and the royal court of Charles IV wanted to see -- perhaps it is perverse to concentrate on the abberrations of a man who made an excellant career first from his production of tapestry designs for the royal looms, then in 1780 gaining appointment as one of the royal painters. It has been said that his best known court work is monstrous in itself -- The Family of Charles IV has an unusual natural quality to it. But the subjects clearly did not disagree, for Goya was appointed Director of Painting at the Madrid Academy in 1795, and was First Painter to the King by 1799. But by then, of course, he had already had to explain to the Academy about the series of small oil paintings 'of fantasy and invention' he had produced in '93. He had undergone a period of severe illness, that had resulted in the loss of his hearing, and said he had produced them 'in order to occupy an imagination mortified by the contemplation of my sufferings.'

That he was asked to explain these illumines something of Goya's position. He was in style very much a traditional painter, in the Spanish tradition of experimenting with light to create effects. These effects could be realistic, as in the work of Velázquez (1599 -- 1660), or evocative, as in Goya's work, of idyllic pleasure in his tapestries and grandeur in his official portraits. In the series on witchcraft that shortly followed his fantasies, they evoke the dark, cavernous spaces of an evil dream. His other medium was engraving, for mass printing and consumption.

The witchcraft paintings were produced between 1794 and 1795 as the decoration to a nobleman's villa. They are excursions into the popular mythology -- la Comida de las Brujas (The Witch's Kitchen) features skulls and the corpses of babies; also mutated, dog-featured humanoids. Another of these appears in Lampara del Diablo (Light of the Devil), acting as the witch's familiar, holding aloft a waxen image. The witches are all hideously ugly women -- as in the undated engraving on the opposite page. The cats, bats and owls that trouble the sleep of reason are of course also traditional symbols of witchcraft.

Goya was at this time forty-nine. This is another way of approaching his work, although it sheds no further light on the contents of his caverns. A successful artist, approaching fifty, suffers a sudden and debiltitating bout of disease. To make things worse, in 1808 Spain was dragged by an uneasy alliance onto the French side of the Napoleonic Wars, over the protest of a great part of the people. These protests became civil war, which led to the invasion of Spain by Napoleon. The country and government Goya had built his life around collapsed, as he saw it, into mindless carnage. The pictures he produced upon the re-establishment of the Spanish throne by Ferdinand II 'to celebrate the heroism of the people of Madrid', are some of the most frightening anti-war pictures ever produced. El Dos de Mayo and El Tres de Mayo depict the battle against the occupying forces and the following executions. He shortly commenced the series of engravings Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). Something of the quality can be gained from the titles, such as 'I saw this' and 'One cannot look upon this'. One plate, The Consequences, shows an exquistely rendered corpse being picked at by a creature, something of a giant bat with an elongated human face, that has just alighted from a dark mass of such creatures clouding the sky. The Disasters were never submitted to a printer by Goya, and were only widely available fifty years after his death. The behaviour of the new Spanish king, once Napoleon was defeated, may explain why.

When Ferdinand VI took the throne, Goya was brought under an investigation for his behaviour during the occupation. He had technically sworn fealty to the French; but he made a good story of it, offerred to paint the 2nd and 3rd of May and was retained as First Painter to the new court.Almost immediately he was under fire from another direction. It was the original Ferdinand, husband of Isabella and first King of a united Spain that inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition. His namesake, faced with a far from united kingdom, decided to reorganise it.

And it wasn't dubious patriotism or even depictions of witchcraft that brought Goya before them. It was the previously mentioned portrait Maja Innudo. They wanted to know why and for whom he had painted the 'obscene' picture.

There were no further paintings for the court. Although Goya retained his title and his income, he purchased a country villa and moved there, and his work from hereon was done for himself and a select audience of friends. The villa became known as los Quinta del Sordo, the House of the Deaf Man, and it is concievable the stress of situation in Madrid had affected his health. Certainly, his first months in the house were spent in the grips of another illness, and as he began to convalesce he began to paint.

On the walls of the villa he produced eighteen murals known today as the Black Paintings. With the exception of one, a portrait of a veiled and beautiful woman, all are terrifying chiarascuro images of torture and madness. The most commonly known is called Saturn Devouring One of His Sons.

Another is Dos Mujenes y un hombre (Man Mocked by Two Women). The women are witch-figures again, and, perhaps as should be expected, there is no male figure painted. Atropos o El Destino should need no comment or translation. El Gigante shows an incredibly detailed foreground of miniscule humanity, fleeing in terror from the presence on the horizon of a huge figure. The House of the Deaf Man still stands, but the Black Pictures have all been moved to the Prado in Madrid. The effect of these images enclosing the walls of every room can only be imagined. If they were still there, what a landmark in the Dark map of the world this place would be!

Goya himself left the villa and the paintings in 1823, to join many other Spanish artists and writers who had moved across the border into France, to escape the regime that was only becoming less tolerable. He was 77, but continued working on various projects up till his death in 1828, including further macabre and fantastical engravings. There is every evidence that he never in fact returned to the house of his nightmares, but left the door shut firmly behind him.

But, as he himself had said, Il siseño de la razon produce monstruos.


* Great Artists of the World -- Romanticism, ed. Clive Gregory L.L.B. and Sue Lyon B.A. Hons. Marshall Cavendish, 1988.

[102] A History of Witchraft -- Sorcerors, Heretics, Pagans, Jeffery B. Russell


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